A post in honor of the 198th birthday of Florence Nightingale. 

To the south of Ukraine in a peninsula known as the Crimea, war raged. Newly-shed blood stained battlefields, the reverberation of artillery shots rang through the area like phantoms of doom, roars of disease attacked soldiers trekking the land, and the wind carried the yelling and crying of victims of disease and war.

Inside a particular army hospital in Turkey, a slender “ministering angel” glided, almost ethereally, between the beds of those plagued with sickness, a glowing lamp swinging from her fingertips. This was Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), nicknamed “the Lady with the Lamp” and a comfort to many.

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Florence Nightingale, in spite of the restrictions of society and her family, was a most accomplished nurse. An affluent British woman in the rich Italian society of Florence, Mrs. Frances Nightingale’s prime interest for her two daughters was marriage, grandchildren, and lives of finery and civilization with no association with “lower class.”

This life, however, didn’t suit Florence. Educated by her Cambridge graduate father William Shore Nightingale, Florence learned the scholarly languages of the worlds, the whims of culture, and the wonders of a classical approach to learning. She found pleasure only in assisting the poor of her city and the sick in the area. From a young age, Florence aimed to work in the medical field.

“A nurse!” Florence’s family cried in distress when Florence suggested the idea at the ripe age of seventeen. Her mother especially turned her nose up at the idea. Nursing was, after all, for the working woman. Nevertheless, Florence trained for work as a nurse, beginning to visit hospitals in 1844, at age twenty-four. She studied at a school in Germany for four months, traveled around the country helping the sick, and met many other women with their eyes on the same career as she.

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Florence Nightingale at St. Thomas’ Hospital (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In 1853, the Crimean War (1853-1856) broke out, a war between Russia and the rest of Europe disputing ownership of the Crimean Peninsula. The Times writer William Russell penned, “Are there no devoted women among us able and willing to go forth to minister to the sick and suffering soldiers of the East […]? Are none of the daughters of England, at this extreme hour of need, ready for such a work of mercy? […]” Florence may have seen this article and thought, “Why not me? I am willing. I am ready.”

On October 21, 1854, Florence set out with thirty-eight other nurses to the barrack hospital of Scutari in Turkey. Officially, she was Superintendent of the Female Nurses in the Hospitals in the East, but she was more often called the Lady-in-Chief.

At Scutari, Florence and the other nurses described the “hospital” as follows: “There were no vessels for water or utensils of any kind; no soap, towels, or clothes, no hospital clothes; the men lying in their uniforms, stiff with gore and covered with filth to a degree and of a kind no one could write about; their persons covered with vermin […] We have not seen a drop of milk, and the bread is extremely sour. The butter is most filthy; it is Irish butter in a state of decomposition; and the meat is more like moist leather than food […]”

V0006579 Florence Nightingale. Coloured lithograph.
The Lady with the Lamp (1891), by Henrietta Rae

In a previous hospital where she’d been superintendent, Florence bettered situations by making sure hot water was available, keeping the living conditions clean, and opening windows to let in fresh air, among other changes. She and the other nurses made similar changes in the Scutari hospital.

As time went on, more nurses came, more supplies became available, need increased, death rates decreased, and Florence Nightingale was on her feet at least twenty hours a day tending to all this. From her work here, she wrote a report called Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army that would help many other hospitals reform. She was “the Lady with the Lamp” and “the Angel of Crimea” to her patients.

In 1856 the Crimean War ended and Florence left Scutari in the summer. When she returned home, she was a hero, met even by the Queen, who presented her a brooch and a large reward. With this money, Florence began the St. Thomas’ Hospital and Nightingale Training School for Nurses. Even sick with brucellosis and bedridden at thirty-eight on, Nightingale never ceased working for the cause she’d loved her whole life.

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Photo from the National Library of Medicine

Before her death, Florence received German Cross of Merit, French Secours aux Blessés Militaires (Military Aid to the Injured), the Order of Merit, the Freedom of the City of London, and the Norwegian Red Cross Society. On August 12, 1910, several symptoms arose in Florence, and she passed away the next day, at the age of 90.

In her lifetime, to many patients Miss Florence Nightingale was a lighthouse at sea, a soft glimmer of light glittering from afar through the fog, encouraging them and, when they reached the shore, sheltering them. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described the significance of Nightingale’s presence in a room in his poem Santa Filomena:

[…] Lo! in that house of misery
A lady with a lamp I see
Pass through the glimmering gloom,
And flit from room to room. […]

[…] A lady with a lamp shall stand
In the great history of the land,
A noble type of good,
Heroic womanhood. […]

“In that house of misery… a lady with a lamp shall stand… heroic womanhood.” This was Florence Nightingale.

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Painting from 1900

Sources Used

Life and history of Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale.
Churchill, E. R., and Linda A. Churchill. “Florence Nightingale.”Short Lessons in World History. 4th ed. Portland: Dover Publications, 2006.
The Crimean War.
Biography of Florence Nightingale.
Florence Nightingale and the Crimean War